Why Being Rejected from Cambridge Was The Best Thing That Happened to Me

I’m going to Cambridge to study English. That was a mantra I repeated time and time again during my teenage years when anyone asked what I wanted to do when I was older. There was a defiant sureness in the way I said it too. I am going to Cambridge. Not ‘I might’. Or ‘maybe’. Like the world owed it to me.

Months of preparations, exams, and some rather questionable interviews all for one email. ‘Unfortunately…’. Nothing good ever starts with unfortunately. I had been rejected. No feedback, no reason why – just a straightforward rejection. I had spent the years before reading books that made me sound impressive, forcing myself to agonisingly pour over Austen, Wordsworth, Dickinson, because I thought that was how I would secure a place I knew was rightfully mine. 

I cried for a few minutes, called my mum and friends, but there was a strange feeling inside me that I couldn’t describe. A part of me that had known all along that the rejection was inevitable. Not because I wasn’t good enough, but simply because I didn’t belong there. I hated studying Shakespeare, I liked my own space to think, and quite frankly the idea of relentless stress made me feel anxious. 

So I went to the University of York. And it was the best decision I ever made. I am a 20th century modernist lover. I adore symbols, motifs, anything that I can get my teeth into and wonder what the hell it meant. And with a flexible course that showed me areas of literature I had never seen, my mind seemed to expand and inflate day by day. 

Obviously, I don’t go to Cambridge. I don’t know what studying English at Cambridge is like. I don’t want to sound bitter in this post. What I do know is that I am more in love with this subject here than anywhere else. The way it intersects so many other disciplines. The fact that I study European film this term! Films! In an English degree! 

I have been introduced to so many writers that get hidden by the Canon, introduced to so many modes of thought, and remain inspired continually. In my first few weeks of uni I bounced between Grecian theatre and 1960s French metatheatrical adaptations. I watched films and learnt about philosophy. I dug my teeth into minute sections of poetry and then compared these texts to the modern world we see.

I studied Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with the same intellectual critique of Marlowe. I studied Shakespeare’s plays in an utterly new light. I failed. I succeed. I tailored my course to my own whims and desires.

This course is obviously not for every English student. But it was a course that was flexible for nearly every student. You wanted to study Ovid, Homer and Percey Shelley? You were in luck. It took coming here to realise that the ideal I had been chasing for so long had also stunted me. 

During school, English had been a dull subject in which there were sometimes glimmers of hope. Something to kindle the small flame inside me so that I didn’t give up on it completely. I would read books in my own time and lament the fact that I would never be able to study them. I now often feel overwhelmed by the amount that I don’t know – but the fact that I am more aware than ever of what literature truly emcompasses is so exciting to me. I write annotations and notes in all my books. I find connections and loose ends between threads of ideas. 

I wanted to go to Cambridge because of its name. And that is no reason to apply for any course. So if I could now, I would personally thank the people behind my rejection. It made me a better person, a better thinker, and most importantly – a better English student.

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